Review & Video Premiere: Duel, Valley of Shadows

duel valley of shadows

[Click play above to stream the premiere of Duel’s video for ‘Black Magic Summer’ from Valley of Shadows. Album is out May 17 on Heavy Psych Sounds. European tour dates here.]

There’s been nothing to dull the momentum Duel have built since the release of their first album, Fears of the Dead (review here), just over three years ago in 2016, and as much as their third LP for Heavy Psych Sounds, Valley of Shadows, might feel like an arrival point, it’s entirely possible it’s just another forward step in an ongoing series thereof. Through considerable touring in North America and Europe, the Austin, Texas, four-piece have worked to earn a reputation and as songwriters. Their sophomore full-length, 2017’s Witchbanger (review here), was a marked step forward from the debut, and the eight tracks/37 minutes of Valley of Shadows follow suit, with a less-rushed feel and a burgeoning attention to detail in songwriting, as well as a more dynamic overall approach that moves Duel further from the ’70s-ism of their beginnings and further toward their own sound.

A 2018 live album, Live at the Electric Church (review here), was a duly admirable showcase of energy, and Valley of Shadows brings that sense of performance to bear as well, but the context in which it does has shifted, as opener “Black Magic Summer” sets a tone not of riotousness, but of a more complex and mood-aware craft. Vocalist/guitarist Tom Frank maintains a characteristic approach with backing by guitarist/engineer Jeff Hensen and bassist Shaun Avants, and Valley of Shadows marks the first appearance of drummer Justin Collins. It would be a stretch to place a shift in sound or style solely at the feet of any single lineup change, and rather, as cuts like “Red Moon Forming” and “Strike and Disappear” play out across the album’s A side, the case seems to be simply one of Duel maturing as a band. If it seems like that’s happening quickly — the debut was three years ago, remember — it is, but one might consider the accelerant of the work they’ve put in on tour and in the studio and the continued urgency of their creativity.

At least part of Valley of Shadows seems to be directly related to processing the last three years’ efforts, as though their time in the studio was a chance to catch their breath and look back. “Black Magic Summer” could easily be a touring song, and likewise “Drifting Alone,” “Strike and Disappear,” “Tyrant on the Throne” and “I Feel No Pain.” And even if that’s not a running theme couched in metaphors of northern moons and autocratic rule, the contemplative, slower Thin Lizzy pace of the opener lends itself to a particular wistfulness, and even as the steady kick drum of “Red Moon Forming” shoves the listener through the track’s four minutes accompanied by a run of dual-guitars and one of the record’s most potent hooks, that more considered vibe holds sway. The arrangement of backing vocals in “Red Moon Forming,” or the subtle changes in guitar and bass in the verse and the careening feel into the chorus, the layering of solos: it all speaks to Duel not only putting more time into making Valley of Shadows — which I don’t know that they did — but being unafraid of going wherever they need to in order to best serve the song.

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Unsurprisingly, “Drifting Alone” carries a melancholy feel, but still picks up for an engaging chorus peppered with backing vocals and a solo deeper in the mix. A bit of effects after the midsection and hints toward vocal harmony across channels lead to the payoff and a cold finish, bringing on “Strike and Disappear,” an album highlight that sets the most sentimental-sounding movement of Valley of Shadows directly against a Motörhead-inspired thrust that consumes the track’s second half in commanding fashion with a forward kick in energy that portends what follows on side B when “Broken Mirror” gets rolling. “Strike and Disappear” is excellently placed after “Drifting Alone,” as Duel have already by then established what seem to be the rules of the album in terms of how far they’ll go either way in terms of mood, and then essentially they shatter those rules by pushing to new limits on both sides. So it goes with the album as a whole in relation to their past work.

“Broken Mirror” taps proto-thrash riffing and is even shorter than its 4:04 runtime implies, cutting off at 3:43 to a kind of echoing and manipulated laughter as a leadout/intro to “Tyrant on the Throne,” which immediately casts its victory in soaring leads and a charging riff. Sure to be a highlight live, it nonetheless carries a studio-born nuance in intertwining guitars and vocal lines, married to a confidence of presentation that makes the whole thing not just believable, but able to bring the audience up to its level. That is, it is executed without posturing and the triumph it conveys is earned and all the more satisfying because of that. More residual hum transitions into the volume trades of “I Feel No Pain,” with its subdued verses and explosive chorus and bridge working to tie the ups and downs of Valley of Shadows together ahead of the stage-ready blowout of “The Bleeding Heart,” which is the longest track at 5:55, but fades out approaching its fifth minute as a wash of keys makes its way in and ultimately serves as the band’s closing statement.

Does it portend things still to come? More to say on the part of the band? Is it an atmospheric expression of the quiet when the show is over? Was it just a sound they made in the studio and thought might work to sneak in at the end of the vinyl? No clue, but even after the fade of “The Bleeding Heart,” it serves as a way of bringing the listener back to reality once the album has finished, and whether or not that was the intent at its inclusion, it is one more way in which Valley of Shadows feels complete in its execution from front to back. Duel have been on a tear since the outset, but they surpass even the lofty expectations they’ve amassed here, and the question that remains is how much farther they’ll continue to push and where that might lead them sound-wise in the longer term. That of course will be seen over time, but even that the question has moved to what they’ll do over “the longer term” is indicative of the staying power so evident in their work. Valley of Shadows sounds like the work of a band here to stay.

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2 Responses to “Review & Video Premiere: Duel, Valley of Shadows

  1. Kev says:

    Almost the same cover as Kaleidobolt’s new album Bitter

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